Natacha Atlas has been creating an amazing fusion of Arabic and Middle Eastern music melded with Western electronic and dance music for almost two decades. Her most notable project has been the work she has done with Transglobal Underground, in which she was singer, songwriter, and belly dancer, though she has made many notable and beautiful solo recordings. This interview was originally done for Mondo 2000, and was aborted due to the failure of the magazine. The interview was held at Bauhaus drummer Kevin Haskin’s house in Topanga Canyon, LA. Kevin was a very gracious guest by the way. Atlas held forth on a variety of topics, ranging from an interesting incident involving Jah Wobble’s pubes to her then dislike of the (at that time) “artist formerly known as Prince”. An engaging conversation to say the least.
percy: “The first Album Diaspora, and the current album Halim, are quite different from each other. Was this purposeful?”
natacha: “Yeah, they are. The whole thing with Diaspora was like it was a chip off of the old block of Transglobal underground, and it had to be because Beggar’s Banquet had heard me with Transglobal, and when they signed me, that’s what they were expecting, and I couldn’t suddenly just go and freak them out with loads of more traditional Arabic sounding stuff which they wouldn’t know how to sell, or who to sell it to. So, Diaspora was a really good kind of introduction. And then I wanted definitely to do something very different for Halim, and I wanted to kind of represent as many aspects of Arabic music that could be heard on one album, really. From contemporary, to some sort of old style, to the sort of 60’s 70’s style nostalgic style, which I like very much. Because I work with a lot of people who are western but love Arabic music, I also wanted an aspect of their idea of what Arabic music sounds like to them, so you have all of this stuff coming into Halim, but there is still sort of a nice classical sound to certain tracks.”
percy: “To your understanding, what has been the reaction so far to the record, specifically regarding the fact that it is a much more traditional representation of Arabic music?” Also factoring in that much of the audience that you have established in the West due to the Transglobal connection sees you as somewhat of a dance music Diva?”
natacha: “Well we stuck a lot of the moody pieces at the end of the record. There are a couple of tracks I worked on with Jaz Coleman (Killing Joke), and some I worked on with John Reynolds, Sinead O’Connor’s ex-husband. It seems to have worked out well as an order, and seems to attach to the listener well this way.
percy: “I know that you have done a lot of collaborations, for instance your work with Jah Wobble and his Invaders of The Heart, and on his album Heaven and Earth”. Your solo albums seem to be much stronger and focused as far as your performances are concerned. Are you working on any more solo projects at this time?”
natacha: “I’ve just finished a third solo recording, this one also for Beggar’s. In fact I will be going into the studio to record a track with David Arnold while I am here in LA He is doing the music for Godzilla, and he did the music for the last Bond film, as well as the track Play Dead with Bjork some time ago.”
percy: “There are some very creative samples on both of your solo records, do you create these yourself?”
natacha: “Basically I play around with one of the guys in Transglobal, because the sound is in my head, but I don’t do the engineering”
percy: “It is quite noticeable that your vocals are much more engaging on your solo records, in that they are integral to the direction and formulation of meaning in the songs, and on many of the collaborative efforts I have heard you sing on, they seem to be thrown on top of the mix.”
natacha: “Quite a few people have said that as well. I think that this has a lot to do with the structure of songs and stuff, in that a lot of things that I do (with others) are like a groove thing with some stuff thrown in, and it’s like a pizza, and then I get thrown in over the top as the garnish. “The thing is, this is the working method of electronica music in general, I find. You know, it bugs me a little bit…I like some electronica, it can be very pleasant to listen to…as background music, mind you. The way people write electronica is like making a pizza, you just start throwing stuff in, and many combinations may work…just like a pizza.
percy: “So the process of distinct composition for a directed musical purpose is very important to you?”
natacha: “With my records, it’s not just the groove with the pizza stuff, the music is definitely very compositional. Arabic music is really about a group of Arabic scales together. Sometimes a song will start with an improvisation on an Arabic scale, then there will be a riff, then move back into a mode of said scale, and then move on to another scale completely, so there can be up to two or three scales in one song. You don’t have quarter notes in the Western scale, you only have them in Eastern music, and they add another dimension and sensitivity, opening other possibilities of music up than you have in the West, because you don’t have those notes. They are very sensitive, these notes. My music is about using this reality of the nature of Arabic composition, along with using technology, and the best of what you can get from the West, which is a lot of the sort of textures and sounds, sounds for snare drums, sounds for Bass, and using the best of that with the best of Eastern music, on an instrumental level, such as the mizmar, the oud, which is like a guitar/mandolin, and the Ney, which is a reed flute, and has a very breathy, desert sound, I use all of these.”
percy: “How did you translate this knowledge and vision into a career as a professional working musician?
natacha: “I think that it kind of started when I went back to Brussels and started hanging out with a couple of Moroccan cousins. I was working as an Arabic dancer, and occasionally singing one of the Egyptian pop songs of the day. One day I was in a Turkish restaurant, and this guy called Yallas who is a keyboard player and singer, he heard me singing and asked me if I knew a particular song, and I said that I did. He asked me to come out and sing. He was a great encouragement. I also learned a particular approach to singing from him, a certain way of pushing the air that is indicative of the Turkish style of singing. Turkey, Iran and Iraq, and Kurdistan all have a similar vocal approach. There are more vocal acrobatics in this style.
percy: “What exactly is your ethnic and Cultural background?”
natacha: “My Grandfather was born in Egypt, and I was born in Belgium, as he moved to Europe when he was about 20. My mother is English, and my father was born in Belgium.”
percy: “ I keep reading that you are part Israeli…”
natacha: “Well I have Jewish blood in me as well, but I don’t always like to talk about that. Because well you know…the Arab side…My Family is mixed Jewish and Arab. But if you look closely at the history, they are the same race, before Islam, before what you call the pagan times, it was all an Arabic race, Semitic people. The only difference is that with the Egyptians, they are a mixture of the Semitic and the Hemitic people, which is the Black race. They are of those two, and have been since ancient Egypt.
percy: “ You have borrowed liberally from your varied ethnic sources, and thus your involvement in Transglobal seems to make perfect sense from this perspective as well as others.” “What was the genesis of your performing with Transglobal Underground?
natacha: “Well, I had been working with Wobble (Jah), and we were at loggerheads at the end. He is a fruitcake really. And he always said that I was the fruitcake, and he kicked me out of the band (invaders of the Heart) in short. He likes to do that, to kick people out of his band, because he’s the boss, you know. I’ve got loads of Wobble stories. I told a couple on KCRW this morning, and the DJ, I forget his name, Nick something or other, he’s lovely, he looks like Pete Murphy…Anyway, he hasn’t been long at the radio station and he neglected to tell me I could not use profanity on the air. I was telling two stories, both of which I had first hand experience with. The first happened after Wobble asked me back to do some recording with him after he kicked me out of the Band, I think it was during the Heaven and Earth session. He wanted to me to do some specific vocal stuff, and he has a way of purposely challenging you, of pissing you off to elicit a certain vocal reaction that might be inside of you. This can be interesting, but sometimes he takes it a bit too far, and I get really pissed off. So I was being a little bit obstinate, and for some reason, it was one of those moments that he got a little bit intense about it, so he unzipped his trousers, in front of the whole band, and he grabbed a load of his pubes, he pulled out a bunch of his pubes, and he put them in his mouth and he ate them. And I said, ‘but Wobble, I’ve seen them before’. And I wasn’t fazed at all.
The second story, and this is where I swore, and Nick got really embarrassed, involved The Artist Formally Known as Prince, Prince, who I really don’t like anyway. He had come to see Wobble play, because he was a fan of -Wobble, many people were in the music world, even though he wasn’t wildly popular to the public. He was at the gig, and obviously he had a backstage pass. Prince came up to Wobble and his manager Dave, and he said to Wobble, ‘Oh man, I love your bass, hot and sticky, just how I like it.’ Wobble just looked at Dave and said ‘get this fucking little shit out of here now!’ Wobble doesn’t care, even though Prince was famous. He thought Prince was a pretentious asshole, ‘get this fucking little motherfucking shit out of here now!’ I said this on KCRW radio, and Nick went bright red, I said don’t you beep them out (starts making beeping sounds)? After that he was a bit apprehensive, he was even still Pink when I left. I started working with Transglobal shortly after the pubes incident.
percy: “ Other collaborations in the works?”
natacha: Well, I’m interested in working with this Guy that I met in Germany, a rock star called Peter Mafey, he’s just done an album and it’s going to be real big over there, he covered one of the tracks from Halim in a very strong, rock style. It was great, you know…yeah it was great! He has put an album together using some Middle Eastern singers. He is part Romanian, and wants to show world music to the Germans, because he thinks that the Germans are wankers when it comes to accepting world music, because they are really, they are always ‘schnell mit der rocking! Schnell Mit der rocking! And that’s all they are into really. He wants to kind of educate them.
percy: “What about decidedly American (US) cultural influences in the music?”
natacha: “Well on the next album, there is one thing that is very much influenced from American Rap, I actually rapped a political piece, aimed at the middle east, but I rapped it in Arabic. I had to get a friend of mine El Fayed, who is half Saudi to help me, because he has been rapping in the American way. He is in a band called Sensor, that has toured the U.S. I told him that I wanted to do rap in an American way. He looked at the words and said ‘these are fucking fantastic, they will work perfectly in this context’. It took me awhile, but I got into the rhythm. In fact in the studio people were telling me ‘you know you are doing this (does her best impression of LL Cool J type hand and body movements), and I didn’t even realize it! I was doing it to keep the rhythm, I never understood the reason for the physical movements, I used to think ‘these black guys, they are just doing this to be impressive’, and surely that is some of the effect, but it is definitely a Rhythm stick. I love American Rap, I’m not too fond of the “gangsta rap” because it isn’t saying much, but stuff like Michael Franti with Spearhead and Disposable Heroes, I love that. I feel that is important music. Sometimes you need to get aggressive really, but in a positive way.
percy: “On this subject concerning the issue of performance, much has been said about the fact that you belly dance during your shows while you sing, most specifically in Transglobal Underground.”
natacha: “This is something that I do quite naturally because it is something that I have known how to do for a long time, so it isn’t really choreographed. It’s usually like ‘this bit gets me going,’ and I will just start doing it. Weirdly enough, people really like it, and get really excited, especially in France. I did it more in Transglobal, because there are tracks where it is all instrumental, and I just dance. Now with them if I want to go on in T-shirt and jeans, they won’t let me, because it is integral to the show.
percy: “Now for the cheesy question..who do you listen to? What would be loaded in the CD carousel at home right now?
natacha: “ Bjork, because she uses her vocals in an interesting way, I hear the roots of Icelandic folk coming through in her voice. I like her a lot. I used to love PM Dawn.
percy: “Do you ever listen to much music that is out of the tradition of American Soul?”
natacha: “No I haven’t.”
percy: “I hear strains of this tradition in your voice, in your music.” “Maybe what it is the fact that American music is blues based, and the blues idiom has its roots in Africa, which starts to close in on the edges of your influence.”
natacha: “I can hear it in some of the singing, Sometimes Jazz singers or some soul singers will move around within a scale in similar ways to Middle Eastern singers.” It all seems to flow towards the same source. Back to this question of the effect of my music in America…A DJ from San Diego in an interview asked me what I thought the reaction to my music would be in America, and I said ‘ You know, I was never really interested in my music being released in America. I was not the least bit interested, mainly because I did not think it had any place here, and that nobody would have any interest in it. It could be a waste of time. Then this bloke said ‘yeah, but I’m really pleased that they did, and I suppose that’s could, maybe the perceptions are changing all of the time.”
percy: “I’ve noticed that you haven’t done what some artists have done in order to make their musical more accessible to this market, and that is sing in English.”
natacha: “Well, the next album is more Egyptian pop, with a more funky bottom end, but Beggar’s did ask me to consider doing one song in English , and I said OK, but only one. In addition I am doing one song in French, It is a cover of an old French Francois Hardy song, Mon Amie La Rose, My friend the rose, one of the most popular French songs ever. The words are amazing, they remind me of Arabic words. I believe that my version is a very good version, it is really going to change things for me in France, which is great, it’s what everybody wants, you know. So one in French for France, and the English song is the one I’m collaborating on with David Arnold.
percy: “I was glad to see that there were some liner notes in English that could be understood”
natacha: “Yeah, I like to do that, to give at least a poetic translation of the lyrics, it won’t always be literal, but it can be understood.” Sometimes it’s only necessary to put down a phrase or a few lines.
percy: “There are some beautiful Egyptian wall paintings in the inner sleeve art that are credited to you, is this something that you spend a lot of time with?”
natacha: “I’ve painted since I was 10 or so. I was a very quiet child, and people thought that I was going to grow up and be a painter. I usually paint Egyptian themes straight onto the wall. I find that it really does help me, because I have nerve pressure problems. I find that it completely exposes my introspective side, and I can go quiet for weeks.”
percy: “In the liner notes you dedicate your work to Halim Hafez, who is he?”
natacha: “Well he’s dead now. I’ve had a kind of Elvis fixation on him forever, he is my absolute hero. He was a singer who was also in Films. He is Egyptian. He died from a microbe infection he caught from swimming in the Nile Canals when he was 7 years old, and it started to impair his life from quite early on. He was an Oboe player and a singer. He had this amazing sensitivity in his voice. He never had to sing very loud, but it was powerful, because he had a hard life. He was physically challenged. He also became emotionally challenged because of certain restrictions in his life. But all of this was manifested in his voice. It was very honest and simplistic; he just opened his mouth and sang. He is my biggest influence. I think of him when I have these periods when I think ‘I could just do a lot of pop music, and get some money and get famous’ All I have to do is stick one of his CDs on , and then I just think, ‘oh no, I don’t really want to do that….I want to be like him.”